The History of How Bad I Am at Learning Languages, (or, "How I Avoided Becoming a Carnie")

I'm not the world's best linguist. I'm pretty good at multiplication, but foreign languages just aren't my thing. I first realized this when God didn't let me learn a language when it came time for me to serve my Mormon mission. I thought He would, because I got good grades in high school, which meant I was smart, which meant I'd be good at learning languages. But God picks up on things that high school exams and reports do not. So He sent me to rural Canada, where I gained 15 pounds and learned to say "washroom" instead of "bathroom." It was a time of growth for me.

Later, I took matters into my own hands. I decided I would learn biblical Hebrew. Then I met Shannon, who mercifully took matters out of my hands and said, "Biblical Hebrew is the least marketable thing on the planet, behind even the ability to operate carnival rides. I won't marry you if you learn biblical Hebrew. Or become a carnie." So I had to study Arabic so that Shannon would marry me.

"Why can't you even say 'hola' right?" Grace and Violet at El Boqueron, 2015.
A couple semesters into my Arabic instruction, I asked my professor how I was doing. This particular professor is recognized worldwide as a savant of the Arabic language, and recognized campus-wide at my university as being refreshingly frank. So when I asked about my progress with the language, he said, "Well, I mean, you're okay. I mean, you're not at the bottom of the pack. You're not lighting the room on fire though, either." And nobody has better encapsulated my linguistic capacity since that day.

I remember studying Arabic in Syria, where I would figuratively bash my head against the workbooks, trying to stuff words and grammatical rules into my brain. Meanwhile, my roommate would watch James Bond movies with Arabic subtitles out in the living room. The next day in class when it came my turn to answer questions, I'd scrunch my eyes closed, searching the folds of my grey matter for words I'd learned only hours before, but which had either vanished or been replaced by Paul Simon lyrics I'd been subconsciously reviewing during my walk to class. Meanwhile, my roommate would effortlessly insert new vocabulary words into his Arabic sentences, words that he'd seen only once -- never heard -- in one of the subtitles during one of the action sequences on Live and Let Die.  By the time I arrived home from Damascus nine months after arriving, I could order a shwarma with extra garlic, tell a microbus driver to stop and let me off the bus, count to 20 with minimal stumbling, and tell people I didn't like Hizbullah.

Now, years later, I'm learning Spanish for my job. I'm allegedly proficient. I figured Spanish would be pretty easy after Arabic. And that's been true to some extent. But Spanish being easier than Arabic doesn't eliminate the fact that I blow at Spanish. Spanish and English having so many cognates actually kind of messes me up, because I can never remember if I'm supposed to add an "-o" or an "-ado" or an "-iente" or a "-mente," or if it's a straight up cognate, like "recomendable" or a not-quite-cognate, like "expectativa." Interestingly -- and somewhat masterfully -- whenver I have a 50/50 guess to make, I get it wrong 100% of the time.

Moreover, even though I pretty much blow at Arabic too, even after more than a decade of studying and using it, I keep on throwing Arabic into my Spanish sentences, especially when I'm trying to speak quickly. For instance, I say "yanni" all the time when I'm stuck in a Spanish sentence, "yanni" being an Arabic word that simultaneously means nothing and everything and that you say and linger on when you're stuck in an Arabic sentence.

But best of all is when my brain corrupts the simplest of Spanish words and then my mouth hurls them at my confused listeners. "Holo!" I greeted somebody last week. I learned how to say "Hola" in like first grade, and now, after 30 years of saying it correctly, I suddenly forgot how to say it, now that they're paying me to say it. Or, during an attempt to formulate the second most basic Spanish word, "gracias," I somehow managed to tell the waiter, "Greesa!" Sounds like a vaguely tasty Mediterranean dish. Or what an Italian pyro would say upon creating a grease fire?

El Salvador, One Week In: Jungle Birds and Phil Collins (or, "He Wouldn't Talk To Me Like That If I Possessed a Monocle")

One of my favorite things about El Salvador is the birds. Savannah calls them "jungle birds." They wake up really, really early in the morning and they sing songs entirely different than those of birds with which I'm familiar. Jungle bird songs are loud and melodic and sort of exotic, and you can't really escape them because they're everywhere. So, sort of like INXS circa 1986-87. Sometimes when I'm at work walking outside, I'll stop and watch the jungle birds soar and squawk, and I admire their brightly colored plumage. It makes me feel British somehow, like I should possess a monocle. And then my boss is like, "Hey! Get back to work!" And I'm thinking, he wouldn't talk to me like that if I possessed a monocle.
Raining down. San Salvador. 2015.

I love the rain that falls in torrents some days in the afternoon or evening. The days start out clear and blue, but you can feel the humidity build through the morning hours. Then, it's like there comes a point that the air just can't hold the moisture anymore, and it all falls as quickly and as violently as it can. I have stood a time or two on our hotel balcony watching the rain rush down, and this Phil Collins song from when I was a kid plays in my mind, "I Wish It Would Rain Down." And I feel like that's pretty much as good as it gets in this life: watching the rain, thinking about Phil Collins wearing a monocle.

Next Stop: El Salvador (or, "Livin' On a Prayer"), or ("You'll Learn How to Surf Within 4-6 Weeks I Swear-Ere")

Tomorrow we'll move to El Salvador. I've never been to Latin America before. Not even Tijuana. But I've been close, like when I used to listen to that Grateful Dead song "Mexicali Blues" over and over while me and my friend Steve joyrided (joyrode?) to Safeway in his parents' Ford Escort. Sometimes when I hear that song now that I'm older, it reminds me of those lawless days and it makes me feel like I'm young again, in the slammer. I am kidding. I've never been in the slammer, unless by "slammer" you mean "slam dancing to 'Unbelieveable' by EMF, which really isn't a song to which one ought to slam dance." If that's what you mean, then, yes, I've been in the slammer.

Savannah imagining herself killing the hill. 2005.
When I was in kindergarten one of my best friends was a kid named Alejandro Rodriguez. He had a rattail and he could run super fast. Some of the less culturally sensitive kids called him Speedy Gonzalez, but not me. I called him the Road Runner, because the Road Runner is ethnically neutral. And as a child -- as I do now -- I believed in ethnic neutrality. And centaurs.

But I think I'm ready to thrive in Central America. I've become quite proficient in Spanish over the past several months. The only Spanish I knew prior to my recent intensive language training was what I learned in seventh grade Spanish class with Ms. Paine, who was cute to the extent that it was hard to focus when she rolled her "r's." And when she enunciated her "t's." And when she used vowels. And I guess I liked how she said her "m's," too. And I recall being fond of the way she said her "d's."

Now I'm basically fluent in Spanish. Ms. Paine would be pretty impressed. But I'd be like, "Look, I know you're impressed but I'm totally married. Also, I have a ton -- a TON -- of money, but, sorry. Taken."

I don't really know what to expect in El Salvador, beyond pupusas. I feel like when you say "El Salvador" to an American they say, "Oh, right, I love pupusas." And I'm like, "You know, there's more to life than food. Like gangs." El Salvador obviously has its problems with crime, but I'd like to point out that Honduras has the higher homicide rate. Also, Salvadorans are, by all accounts, warm and pleasant, and the surfing there is reportedly amazing. I've never surfed before, but I've imagined myself surfing, so I feel like, as Bon Jovi would say, I'm 80% of the way there. "Ohhhhhh... we're 80% of the way there-ere!! Oh-OH! Livin' on a prayer!! Ohhhhh... you'll learn how to surf within 4-6 weeks I swear-ere!! Oh-OH!! Livin' on a prayer!!"

Kiss My Bicep (or, "How It Feels to Be Gymtimidated")

I joined a gym. There aren't a lot of mirrors at the gym I joined, so I thought it might be the kind of gym where people exercise and not the kind of gym where people admire themselves in the mirror. Because I'm not the kind of person that admires himself in the mirror. In public. In my own bathroom mirror, it turns out I'm actually quite admirable, particularly if I squint so you can't tell I have a lazy eye, and if I don't smile so you can't see my snaggleteeth, if I wear a blanket over my head so you can't see my head, and if the mirror is only from the neck up so you can't see my Goodwill clothes.

The Clinton Curtis Band is gymtimidating. 2014.
I've always loathed gym franchises. This is because one time when I was in college and I was waiting in line to buy tickets to a football game, a dude was going down the line with a clipboard, trying to get people to join Gold's Gym. When he got to me, he looked my scrawny bod up and down and said, "You look like you might want to work out." And I was like, "Nah, I'm good." And he goes, "Dude, why do you hate your body?" And I said, "I hate my body because it's not roundhouse kicking you in the neck right now." And that was the end of our relationship.

But a month or two ago I joined a gym near my house because it's one of those feel-good gyms. Like you can't yell at people for being weak sauce, and you can't make loud grunting noises while you lift barbells, and you can't kiss your own bicep. However, I believe it's acceptable to kiss someone else's bicep. Closed mouthed. To preserve the feel-good-ness.

The feel-good vibe draws an eclectic crowd. Once, there was this really, really old guy sitting at one of the weight machines that I wanted to use. Just sitting there motionless. I was like, "Well, homeboy's resting between sets, I'll do something else for awhile." But then ten minutes later he was still in the same position, unmoving, and I thought, "I wonder if, while lifting, that guy pulled something, like, his aorta." When I went home he was still there, but when I came back the next day he was gone, so maybe he got embalmed.

There is this rule that is plastered all over the walls of the gym, and on the sides of the weight machines. It is: "No Gymtimidation." This means you can't walk around the gym and go up to people and say things like, "I dislike you," or "I'm going to push you onto the floor right now, probably," or "You suck, like, big time." Also, it means you can't even be wordlessly intimidating, like by standing there and not smiling, or by walking swiftly and with purpose.

But not everyone follows the No Gymtimidation rule. Once, a lady walked by me with a shirt that said "Go Big or Go Home" and I felt gymtimidated. But I didn't know how I could respond without being gymtimidating myself. For instance, saying "Excuse me, but your shirt makes me feel insignificant," has the obvious subtext of "I'm considering keying your car." Similarly, simply getting up and walking away is clearly a nonverbal way of saying, "I passed gas where you're standing and I don't feel bad about it." So, although I like the No Gymtimidation vibe, I find it hard to fully abide.

My Hometowns Are Better Than Yours, Part 2 (or, "Sweet Nuclear Sleep and Salmonella'ed Tacos in Wascopum")

It has been established that I have two hometowns. Therefore, it follows that I am one of the coolest people alive.

Usually you need at least two data points, "A" and "B," before you can say, "A and B, therefore C." But when your "A" is that you have two hometowns, the rest of the alphabet can suck it, you know? Because you rule everything. You're above logic. You're up there with Ted Cruz and Def Leppard.

Not from my hometown. But still. Fort Hall. 2014.
One of my hometowns is Portland, OR. The other one is The Dalles. If you ever played the computer game Oregon Trail, The Dalles is where your little brother Ichabod died of cholera. It used to be called Fort Dalles, but then in the 1850s somebody really stupid changed the name to "Wascopum." But then people were like, "Wait, our town is called Wascopum," so it became The Dalles. The Dalles is the site of the largest ever bioterror attack on American soil, in which followers of an Indian mystic poisoned the food at several local restaurants, including Skipper's and Taco Time. I was okay with them poisoning the food at Skipper's, because, ew, Skipper's, but targeting Taco Time was a step too far, and I rallied my Kindergarten class to oppose the Indian mystic. And by "rallied my Kindergarten class," I mean "I didn't know there was a bioterror attack six blocks from my house until I was in college."

I used to have a t-shirt that said, "I Survived the Largest Ever Bioterror Attack on American Soil," but I was five and didn't know what it meant so I think I put it in the Salvation Army box. Too bad. That thing would be a sweet muscle shirt now that I work out twice per month on a good month.

I was born in The Dalles. My dad lives there now in a little house by the ballpark where the high school plays its baseball and football games. My friend Danny's Grandma used to live on the hill above the football field so that you could sit on her deck and watch the game. She didn't really speak English very well, so she'd cheer in Spanish and we were like, "I'm culturally overwhelmed here," so we'd just go down to the field behind the bleachers and play Smear the Queer with all the other middle schoolers. I suppose they probably don't call it Smear the Queer anymore, because, obvious reasons, but I promise homophobia never entered our minds. The only thing we were thinking of was completely and totally murdering the kid with the ball, regardless of his sexual orientation.

Me and Dad took a bike ride along a nice paved path called Riverfront Trail. The trail is a nice idea. Except the riverfront area in The Dalles is also the industrial area. So you're riding along, past the shipyard with heavy, greasy machinery that they use to load and unload river barges, past the junkyard, past an abandoned restaurant, past the old aluminum plant, and the river there just past the edge of the trail is a weird nuclear green color, and you're thinking, "Is that my stomach rumbling because I'm hungry or are my pancreas cells mutating?"

The great thing about being from a small town is things don't change very much. After our bike ride, me and Dad were tired and radioactive, so Dad fell asleep while we watched a NASCAR race on TV. I decided to let Dad sleep it off, so I took a drive around town, just for old time's sake. And I noticed things basically haven't changed much since 1992.

There's a strip mall called Cascade Square that used to have an Alberton's where you could get a free cookie at the bakery if you were cute, which meant I was out of luck. But still. The building where Albertson's used to be is vacant now, but Maurice's is still there next door. Maurice's is where all the ladies in town went to get sweet action stylin' clothes that would make you look like you were in your late-40s, regardless of your actual age. My mom would go to Maurice's sometimes, and I'd be like, "Mom, no, don't do it, you're still young, don't give up." But the only other place to get clothes in town was Tony's Town & Country, which only really sold cowboy boots and plaid shirts and lassos, and Mom had arthiritus, which negatively affected her lassoing skills, so Maurice's it was.

One thing that changed in town in the last 20 years is that Dairy Queen moved to a new spot. Now it's across from Safeway. While Dad slept his sweet nuclear sleep, I bought a Peanut Buster Parfait and sat in the car in the parking lot, just watching people go by. It was pretty relaxing and pleasant. But then a crazy guy walked by with no shirt, sort of just shouting at things and stumbling a little bit. I locked my doors, because I'm pretty sure I could read his lips and he was saying, "I need me a Peanut Buster Parfait in my veins!! It's been four days!! I can't live like this!! Thanks Obama!!" And I thought, wow, I guess things really have gone downhill in my hometown. Used to be if a man needed a Peanut Buster Parfait, the government could get him a Peanut Buster Parfait. And by "the government" I mean "his mom." But now, man, it's a scary world out there, even in Wascopum.

My Hometowns Are Better Than Yours, Part 1 (or, "The Undesireables")

I visited my hometowns over the weekend to see my parents. I have two. Hometowns. And parents. Everyone has two parents, but not everyone can claim two hometowns. This is just one reason why I'm special. The other one is because I can touch my tongue to my nose. So you can see I have some things going for me.

Here I go again on my own, like a drifter. (2014)
I landed in Portland, Oregon, one of my hometowns, after a solid eight-hour day of flying. And boy are my arms tired. Just kidding. I'm not actually able to create the requisite thrust and lift with just my arms. I took an airplane.

I'm an unlucky airline passenger. I always have to sit by the Undesireables. You know who they are. Haven't showered. Hog the armrests. Have to go potty a lot. Snore. Listen to really loud music through really cheap earbuds. I always have to sit by them. This is because in first grade I made fun of the recess lady's weight issues and now the universe is slowly righting my cosmic wrong.

At the airport before I board the flight I usually try to pick out who I'll have to sit by. It's fairly easy -- I just look around to see who is annoying me and that's typically my neighbor on the flight.

When I was getting ready to leave Washington for Minneapolis, where I'd catch a connecting flight to Portland, there was a guy talking really loudly into his Bluetooth earpiece. He was mid-40s, had a round face and a round body and a moustache that reminded me of a sea cucumber. His phone rested in a holster clipped to his belt that pinned his one-size-too-small polo shirt across his jiggly belly and into his jeans. I wagered his name was Don or Paul or Otis, but definitely not Jeremy or Tyler or Alex or Smalls. I thought to myself, "Oh man, dang. I'm sitting next to that guy."

Well, I boarded the plane, and I didn't sit next to that guy. I sat next to an even larger guy with an amazing mullet spilling from the back of a worn-out Orlando Magic proback cap. He monopolized the armrest and sat on the non-adjustable half of my seatbelt so that I couldn't buckle up without A) talking to him, or B) sliding my hand under his bum. I wasn't in a talkative mood, nor a bum-grabbing one, so I just made the other half of my seatbelt as long as it could go, stretched it across my lap, and folded my arms over it when the flight attendants walked by.

After an hour layover in Minneapolis, I boarded my second flight -- this one longer than the first. I worked my way back to my assigned seat, and there, sitting in the seat next to mine, blustering into his Bluetooth headset, was Don/Paul/Otis. I'm like, "Look, universe, I'm sorry about what I said about the recess lady. She was just big-boned. I know that now."

Don/Paul/Otis slept for most of the flight and snored, grunting and shifting his girth into my hip whenever somone came on the intercom. I tried to watch out the window when we came in for a landing but Don/Paul/Otis stuffed his fat face in front of the window so I couldn't see. Somehow I'm sure I deserved that.

Next time I'll introduce you to my other hometown, which, like Portland, is better than yours. Unless you're from Pensacola, in which case you win.

Risk!

Here Grace laughs in the face of risk.
By Shannon:

Our family game of Risk last Sunday afternoon surpassed everyone’s attention span but Joey’s (because he was winning). Grace and Halen faltered most, but Savannah kept at the game for quite some time. After one particularly risky move, Savannah reasoned that Grace wouldn’t be smart enough to attack her . . . which was not actually a smart thing to say aloud. Joey and I glanced furtively at Grace, preparing to initiate emotional damage control. Startled by our attention, Grace straightened in her seat, pulled her foot from her mouth, and spit out a toenail.

No harm, no foul!

What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love, and David Bowie? (or, "Look at Me, I'm an Isosceles Triangle")

Everyone, including me, has lost interest in my blog. But I still think it's cool to have one. Cool in a post-cool sort of way. So uncool that it has circled back around and become cool again. Like Jazzercise. But some things are so bad that they never were cool and never become cool, like Labyrinth-era David Bowie.

"Interesting. Tell me more about David Bowie."

I've always been kind of slow to catch on to trends. I never consciously rejected cool stuff. I just always liked really lame stuff. Or, when I caught on to something cool, it was always a little too late. For instance, in sixth grade Adam Shaw had two Mötley Crüe shirts. I don't think he had any other shirts. One shirt read "Kickstart my heart," and the other one said, "He's the one they call Dr. Feelgood." I liked the Dr. Feelgood one because it made me feel good when I looked at it, despite the fact that I was looking at a venomous snake with bat wings wrapped around a knife with what I think was a foul-tempered meerkat on top. One day Adam asked me if I liked Mötley Crüe, and I said, "Yes, I think so." Adam wanted to know what my favorite song was and I said "I really like 'Ice Ice Baby'," and he said, "No, I mean your favorite Mötley Crüe song," and I said, "Wait, Mötley Crüe doesn't sing 'Ice Ice Baby'?" Adam sort of gradually stopped being my friend after that, because Vanilla Ice doesn't have any umlauts.

Later, I found out that that super sophisticated bass line in the Mötley Crüe song "Ice Ice Baby" came from that one Freddie Mercury/David Bowie duet, so in 1996 I bought Bowie's album Heroes because I liked that "Look-at-me-I-am-an-isosceles-triangle" pose David Bowie is striking on the cover. Nineteen ninety-six was a good 10 years after David Bowie stopped being relevant, at least in the musical realm, but I was also almost entirely irrelevant to anything in 1996, so me and David Bowie were a good team.

In my high school there was a creepy picture on the wall in the library of David Bowie holding a book, like he was reading it. And I was like, "David Bowie can read? How does he read with those different colored eyes?" And then I went to the card catalogue and used the Dewey decimal system to find a book about David Bowie and I found out he got into a fight in middle school over a girl and the guy punched him in the eye and it changed color after that. So, between that and listening to Heroes hundreds of times on my Discman while I played "Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past" on my Super Nintendo all summer, you can see how David Bowie really spurred a period of serious growth in my life.

Later, I bought all his albums, because I felt like he had a lot to teach me, about cavemen and spacemen and V-2s and scary monsters and Detroit and suffragettes. Once, in college, I made a commitment that I would listen only to David Bowie for two solid weeks. This was when most kids my age didn't realize that androgyny was a thing 35 years before Brandon Flowers knew someone who had a boyfriend who looked like a girlfriend. I don't know if I would repeat the experiment, as I experienced a loss of appetite and a series of bad hair days that I'm certain resulted at least indirectly from sustained exposure to songs off Diamond Dogs and Aladdin Sane, but I still think it was a net positive. In the sense that I lived through it. I'm simultaneously impressed and disgusted with myself that I had so much to say about David Bowie.

What to Do With Winter (or, "Less Bears, More Angels")

Winter is a little bit nicer when it only comes around once every few years. It passed us by in Saudi Arabia. It's all right. There aren't too many people interested in visiting Saudi Arabia. I guess I can't blame winter for not being interested either. Maybe winter figures it's got better places to go. Austria or Slovenia. Jasper. Someplace where they know what to do with it.

Grace in the winter. 2015.
It doesn't snow a lot in the winter where we live this year, which makes it feel like your birthday when it does, or at least your half-birthday. In the afternoon on a Tuesday the snow came for an hour. I watched it through the window when I should've been doing something more professional. It was like thick, white rain coming down in slow motion, falling so gentle that maybe you could thread your way between the big wet flakes, zigzag across the whitening grass and dodge every last bit of snow and get back inside as dry as when you left. That's not a very professional thing to think. But professionals probably ought to spend more time contemplating the snow, I suspect. Probably that way we'd have less Arthur Andersen and Bear Stearns and more snow angels and rosy cheeks. I can't think of too many people who would complain about that kind of world.

We used to drive up the mountain in the winter when I was young. It was always raining in the valley -- Portland is like that -- but Dad got us on the winding road uphill and pretty soon the strip malls and car dealerships would thin out and pine trees would start to crowd the highway and the rain splattering on the windshield would turn slushy, and then you pushed past the freezing level and all the cold raindrops in the gray sky would suddenly explode into snowflakes, billions of them, whirling and hurtling like the biggest and coldest and most chaotic ballet you ever saw. Dad would smack the steering wheel sometimes when the snow started flying and say something forgettable to me like, "Oh boy, Joey!" Except I never have forgotten.

Funny how that works. After awhile I probably won't remember reports I wrote or much of the work I did that earned a paycheck, but it will be hard for me to forget the sound of snowflakes plinking the windshield. The taste of the car heater. All the forgettable things that people say from the driver's seat on long ago Tuesdays in long ago winters.

Of Swamps and Sliders and Cypresses and Soda (or, "Crossing America, Part 3")

Texas and Louisiana sort of ooze into each other in the black swamps northwest of Shreveport. We're four of a handful of campers at a "lake" that is less lake and more dark, motionless soup. I tell a guy in overalls slouching in a plastic chair outside a shack near the entrance to the lake that we're hungry. He says there's only one place to eat if you don't want to drive an hour or catch and throttle an egret with your bare hands. It's a lodge a couple miles down a dead end road, and all the locals eat there, and plus, he adds, tonight is the season premier of Monday Night Football, which the lodge shows on all it's sixteen big screen TVs. Or maybe it was eight. When there are more than three big screen TVs the actual number doesn't matter anymore. You have too many.

Sundown on the bayou. 2014.
The kids wonder warily aloud whether the lodge will have hot dogs. I tell them the question is moot because I can't get within throttling distance of the big white egret haunting the cypress swamp near our tent. And then I have explain to the kids what moot means, which is surprisingly hard when you're really hungry.

The lodge is a massive, sturdy house in a stand of tall pines that fade into cypress trees as the firm land gives way to a wide swampy bayou. We've arrived just a few minutes after they've opened for dinner, and there's enough staff on hand to serve most of East Texas. Except me and my three kids are the only customers. So we take our seats, and we order, and we eat, and we order more, and an hour and a half later, there still aren't any customers. Maybe nobody likes the Lions or the Giants in East Texas.

The assorted big screens broadcast the game to the empty dining hall, and we sample coleslaw (rejected by the kids) and hamburger sliders (accepted by the kids) and we down glass after glass of free-refill soda. Halen and Grace snuggle up on my lap and even Savannah scoots her chair a little closer to mine while we watch the game alone in high def in the cavernous lodge. The sun sinks outside toward the wet, steamy horizon. Through the windows you can see the bugs hovering just above the still swamp water, Spanish moss drooping from cypress branches, perfectly still in the evening's heavy heat. Eli Manning throws an interception on TV. Grace asks what an interception is. Halen explains to her in a matter-of-fact tone what an interception is despite not knowing at all what an interception is. I take a drink of Coke and it tastes like the world is perfect.

The Man Who Owns All the Mechanics (or, "Crossing America, Part 2")

My dad is a truck driver. There are a lot of perks to having a truck driver for a dad. For instance, my dad makes little kids happy when they drive past his truck on the freeway, and they make that fist pump motion that means they want the truck driver to honk his horn, and then my dad honks his horn, and the kids are happy and don't flip him off like they do other drivers. I bet your dad can't make kids glad like that. Unless your dad is an ice cream man. And if he is, I bet you don't have a place to live, and I am sorry about that.

One time, I got home from school and there were two new CDs on the kitchen table, and I asked my dad, I said, "Where did these CDs come from?" And he said, "Oh, a pallet fell off my truck while they were unloading it, and all these CDs fell on the ground and they can't sell them so they were just going to chuck them. So I brought a couple I thought you'd like." And I said, "Why didn't you grab ALL the CDs and bring them home to me? Why are you such a lackluster father?." Just kidding. I didn't say that. I bet your investment banker dad doesn't bring YOU home free stuff, except I guess maybe a small equatorial island from the Indian Ocean sometimes.

Halen's future Jag. Gulfport, MS. 2014.
Another cool thing is that my dad knows the highways of the United States like your dad knows the drab corridors of the sad office building downtown where he types things and copies other things and secretly looks at the highways of the United States on Google Maps when he's supposed to be in a meeting in a florescent-lit room around a depressing faux-wood table talking about meetings. So, being as such that my dad knows useful things, when I took my kids on a cross-country road trip last summer, I called my dad.

"Tell me a cool route, Dad," I said. "The Gulf Coast," Dad said. Sometimes Dad eschews subjects and verbs. He's sort of like what Confucius would be like if Confucius eschewed subjects and verbs and wore Harley stuff more often. So I took the Gulf Coast.

In Gulfport, Mississippi we stopped at a big auto body shop that doubles as a classic car museum, because the owner collects classic cars, and my son likes cars. A lot. He wants to be an auto mechanic when he grows up. I say that's cool but maybe line up a second job to supplement your income, like hunting for antiquitous treasures with a metal detector from Wal-Mart. While perusing the auto museum, admiring a limited edition late-1960s Jaguar, moments after inspecting three shiny side-by-side early-80s Porsches, a light bulb went off in my son's head. "Wait. So, the guy who bought all these cars is a mechanic, right?" he said.

"No," I lied quickly. "He owns mechanics. All mechanics. He owns all the mechanics here. And all the mechanics in Japan. And everywhere else. In the world. That's why he's rich. He owns people." My son gave me his "You-Have-A-Law-Degree-So-You-Should-Know-It-Is-Inappropriate-To-Make-Allusions-To-Involuntary-Servitude" look and said, "So mechanics CAN makes lots of money! I don't need a metal detector from Wal-Mart after all!" What I didn't say to my son in that moment is what I would like to share with all of you now -- a piece of wisdom gleaned from my lifetime's experience: yes, mechanics can make a lot of money, but regardless you probably still do need a metal detector from Wal-Mart.

Waffles are Cool (or, "Crossing America, Part 1")

I live in a box stacked on top of other boxes where more people live. From a window in my box I can see stacks of boxes piled seven high and fourteen across, and I watch people move around inside their boxes. Eating. Watching TV. Playing the guitar. They live inside their boxes and I live inside of mine.

On lookout for waffles. New Mexico, 2014.
There is a nice, paved pedestrian trail where all the people go to exercise. Some people run and others walk. The men in spandex ride bicycles. Toned and fit mothers run behind heavy strollers. Young couples walk dogs. On Sunday mornings we take family walks, but the nice, paved pedestrian trail is too crowded. We stop to examine small blue flowers but the sleek men in spandex do not, and neither do the blonde yuppies with expensive earbuds and bare, sweaty backs and stomachs. We are like 80 year olds driving 35 on the freeway, a latent three-bike-and-five-runner-and-a-rollerblader pile-up. So we walk on the street instead, with the cars. It's safer.

At night I watch airplanes line up to land. They blink red, blue, purple, white against the night that never gets dark. It just turns husky orange, deep scarlet, inky purple with the streetlights and neon signs and headlights it absorbs from the city below. Cell phone towers with pinpricks of light on top stick the glowing sky so that we're never disconnected. But in this orderly metropolis of humanity arranged carefully in residential boxes and moving in a proper two-lane flow down smooth pedestrial paths for lunchbreak exercise, I feel disconnected sometimes.

In a Days Inn in a place called Thibodaux, Louisiana they offer free breakfast from six to ten in the morning, which is the least they can do for being located in a place called Thibodaux. There was an old man in a uniform piddling around the dining area when I brought my kids in for breakfast. He was tidying up, wiping syrup off the tables, reordering the salt and pepper shakers. Halen said he wanted a waffle. Before I could respond, the old man was pouring batter into the waffle machine. "I got yer waffle, young-un," he said in a warm, lilting drawl.

"Oh," is all I could think to say, in kind of a surprised and grateful way, because the janitor was making my son a waffle. And then he made my daughters waffles. And he made me a waffle. He just stood there for ten minutes making waffles for my family, whistling. Whistling. And as he finished each waffle he bathed it in syrup and slid it in front of each delighted child, saying something like, "That'll do ya, darlin'," or "You lap that up there, son." And then with a grandfatherly grin he shuffled off, and we just sort of looked at each other, like, "This Days Inn is pretty cool." Because somehow the old janitor wove with waffles and syrup a human connection that cell towers and airplanes and stacks of boxes full of people cannot. And that is pretty cool.

It's the Little Things (or, "Life Happening, Part 3")

The heat index was 97 degrees when I went running at 5:30 this morning. I step outside and the air wraps itself around me like a thick quilt. I stand there for a minute, watching the first pink shades of sunrise seep slowly through the saturated sky, and then I look down and my arms are sweating from the exertion of watching the dawn break. I'm just happy the heat index was down in double digits. It's the little things.

Our housing compound is a ghost town. Everyone with a modicum of sense -- and lacking a job -- has gone somewhere else for the summer. Anywhere. Thunderdome? Yes, please.

Little thing. 2009.
I walk the compound streets at night to think. The sounds of life outside the compound are muffled and distant, like a radio playing low in another room so that you only catch an occasional bass drum or a far-off lyric. There's a faulty streetlight that I sometimes stop to watch. It burns out with a plink that you can hear if the street is quiet enough, and the pavement below goes dark. I stand underneath and crane my neck and watch the orange bulb way at the top of the pole lose its color and fade until it's black as outer space. But I don't move. I stand there and stare at the dark streetlamp. And if somebody walks by then maybe I look like a crazy person. Maybe I am a crazy person. But if I watch the dead streetlight for long enough, it blinks on again with another barely audible but oddly satisfying plink, and it throws white light down on the dark street in a perfect circle, and I stand in the middle, and the white light slowly turns orange as the bulb up above gradually heats up. And somehow it warms my bones in a way the hot, sticky air around me cannot. It's the little things.

A year ago I eased into an urban gas station for a fill. I waited with my window down, the shimmery smell of 95-octane wafting into the cab. A little African girl skipped up to my car. She was dressed in a wildly colorful shawl and wore a smile so dazzling I thought she might ignite the petrol fumes. The children who beg for money are typically so dour and depressing, but this girl oozed life as she greeted me in Arabic. She seemed about to ask for money, but she stopped and studied me intently, her little brows knitting together.

"Where are you from?" she said. "Where do you think I'm from?" I answered, also in Arabic, which seemed to confuse her more, but also teased a hint of her charming smile from the corner of her mouth as she realized a guessing game was afoot. "I don't know..." she said shyly, kicking at the ground, her smile growing. "Lebanon?"

"Noooooo..." I said, shaking my head and grinning. "Turkey?" she offered. "No, " I said. "Syria?" she was laughing now. "No," I replied. "I don't know then!" she said, her shoulders shrugged, her elbows bent and her palms facing skyward, her little head cocked to one side expectantly. I wondered if maybe she had exhausted the list of countries she knew. "I'm American!" I told her in my best Bob Barker tone. She shook her head as if to say, I never would've guessed that, and she giggled and adjusted her shawl. "Where are you from?" I asked. "Sudan," she said, still grinning widely. "How old are you?" I wondered. "Six," she told me. "My daughter is six too," I said, as I counted out six riyals and handed them to her. It seemed somehow like a lame gesture, but I didn't have any new lives in my wallet to offer. That's what I wanted to give her. But sometimes all you have is wholly inadequate. I suppose you should give it anyway.

Several months later I pulled into the same gas station. The same little girl approached me, still skipping with a massive smile splashed across her face. She slowed as she approached. I arched an eyebrow at her expectantly. "You're......." she was trying to place my face. ".... from Turkey, right?" I laughed. "American," I reminded her. She laughed too. "Are you seven yet?" I asked. She nodded. And I counted out seven riyals. "My daughter is seven now too," I told her as I handed her the money. She gingerly took the bills, then stared at them in her hand for a moment, as if she was thinking hard. "Is she pretty?" the little girl asked, looking up and squinting at me. The question caught me off guard. So I paused, and we just looked at each other for a second there beside the gas pump.

"Yes," I said finally. "Like you." And she grinned bigger than I would've thought possible. It's the little things. 

Ramadan Waxing, Ramadan Waning (or, "Life Happening, Part 2")

Last night the moon was full. It willed its pale light across space and through the light pollution and humid maritime haze. I was walking down a dark, quiet street, my weak pallid shadow following me down the pavement. I gazed at the moon. It was crisp despite the sultry night air. A couple of men murmured from the shadows, low and bass-heavy and strangely comforting. There was a clink. They were drinking tea.

Waxing, not waning. Jeddah, 2014.
It is Ramadan in Saudi Arabia. The streets are empty at 8 a.m., 9 a.m., 10 a.m. They are gridlocked at midnight, 1 a.m., 2 a.m. The faithful, and even the less faithful, fast sunrise to sunset. They sleep away the long, hot days and bustle beneath the waxing moon, and then, as Ramadan progresses, beneath the waning moon. You can be jailed for eating or drinking in public during the day. The phone call home from jail would go, "Mom, I'm in the slammer." "What?! Are you doing weed again?" "No, Evian water."

Ramadan is half over, the full moon told me as I walked. In the West we look at our wrists or our phones to know how much life the month has left. And when we look at our wrists or our phones, we also see what time it is, and, while I'm here, I'll open this news app or that social app and, oh no, I don't have enough time to do this or that, to do everything I want to do, or, worse, everything I'm told to do, and I got four emails in the past 20 minutes and I need to read and respond to them, and I can't believe the comments at the bottom of this article about controversial social issue. And by then we've disappeared into virtual reality, only virtually alive.

There is still another half of Ramadan left, the full moon said. It circles solitary and constant across the night, waxing, waning, oh so slowly pulsing. There is something splendid about a calendar in the sky that we look to to pinpoint when we are, because it also reminds us where we are, even who we are as we scurry about down here, moving, hoping motion alone will get us somewhere. Aging. Waning.

Last night the moon was full. Luminous and living. And I watched it glow and I thought how every full moon dies a little each night, fading until it's black as a tomb. But we don't call it a dead moon. We call it a new one.

Your Kid Beat Someone Up? Mine Too. Let's Chat.

By Shannon

It's easy to assume that kids who have conscientious parents don't pick on other kids. They don't bite their playmates at preschool. They don't make fun of misfits. They don't intimidate kids who are timid. 

If you are one of the people who assumes these things, I have a few possible explanations:

1. You don't have kids.

2. Your kid isn't old enough to show you what you're in for.

3. You have no idea what your kid does behind your back.

4. You control your kid’s life way too much.

5. Your are just lucky to have a super-duper compliant kid (and you probably don’t have very many of them, because the odds of getting a very compliant kid are rare, I’m telling you).

I have fit each of those parent profiles over the years. Each of my children makes me worry in their own special way. Much as I'd like to remove all opportunities for them to horrify me, I recognize that children need the option to make wrong choices every now and then (within reason!).Because my kids outnumber me 4 to 1, they have ample opportunity to make some really bad choices without my knowing. Last Halloween, one of them did just that.

It started in the typical way--roughhousing with a couple of friends at a party. One of the 8-year-olds whipped out some ninja moves. Another called upon some ideas gleaned from a recent video game. To make it more realistic, they focused their attention on the boy who would be easiest to beat up. (And very unfortunately, this kid also happened to be the son of one of my husband's unavoidable coworkers. Can you believe I relegated that detail to parentheses?) Play fighting soon turned into real fighting, and Lucas, the easy-to-beat-up kid was kicked in the ribs, his ear was smashed into the ground, and he took more than his share of kidney punches. His face told the whole story without his ever whispering a word to his mother.

She was the one who conveyed the story to me. Within a few minutes, I had located my son and was dragging him back home. Outraged as I was, I reminded myself to maintain composure as I delivered his sentence: no trick-or-treating.

If it hadn't been Halloween, I'm sure his howl of agony would have roused the neighbors. He sobbed uncontrollably when his dad and sisters left with candy baskets in hand. He might even have been sobbing inconsolably, but there's no way of knowing--I didn't try  to console him.

Instead, I sent him to his room to cry it out. Later I let him return to the living room on the condition that he wouldn't try to convince me to remove his punishment and that he wouldn't otherwise verbally harass me.

Despite frequent interruptions from trick-or-treaters at the door, my boy and I actually had some great bonding time together that evening. We snuggled into the couch and talked about what he had done and what he hadn't done at the party. We talked about a lot of unrelated stuff too.

My son agreed that he should apologize to Lucas, even though (he claimed) his other friend had inflicted most of the damage during the beating. That friend actually showed up at my door at one point. Holding his bag out for loot, he asked where my boy was. Trying to be evasive in this semipublic setting, I answered, "He, uh, did something he wasn't supposed to do tonight."

"Oh, he can't go trick-or-treating for THAT?" he exclaimed. ". . . I didn't even get in trouble about it from MY mom."

Guess who got the lamest piece of candy in his Halloween bag for that response?

When my husband returned, my boy was ready to make amends for what he had done. Abu Halen made a couple of phone calls and arranged a meeting with Lucas that night.

Lucas was sitting on his porch when we arrived. Not one to waste time on small talk, my boy immediately apologized, saying that he was really sorry for what he had done. Lucas shrugged with a quiet, "That's okay."

Then my son offered Lucas one of his best matchbox cars. Because these are boys, the car was all it took to mend the friendship. They changed the subject and chatted happily as if they hadn’t both just experienced the worst Halloween of their young lives. Lucas's peacemaking younger sister even invited my boy to come along to a haunted house with their family.

Aren't kids awesome?

In the months that have passed, I've seen my son exercise greater caution not only with Lucas but with other children. I've even seen him defend other kids from his unpunished accomplice. Although I'm not proud of my son's mistakes, I'm proud of what he has learned form them. I think God feels that way about us all. I think He's disappointed when we do wrong but thrilled when He sees evidence that we've truly changed, because that's exactly the reason He gave us the opportunity to be alive.

Life Happening, Part 1 (or, "Sleeping Man & Sleeping Cat")

I have lived in Saudi Arabia for nearly two years now. A mere eyeblink, really. An airplane will take me away in a few weeks. So I find myself pausing more often, looking closer, listening harder, talking less, trying to absorb as much as I can in the time I have left. The heat and the water vapor, the car horns and garish storefront lights, the harsh, pungent smells of gasoline and sewage and salt water and sweat. The everyday rhythm and motion of humanity. It's low and earthy and raw and human. It's ugly and beautiful -- and to me that's the best kind of beautiful. Because it's real.

Old City, Jeddah. 2014.
I've met a few princes and princesses and fabulously wealthy barons of industry during my time in Jeddah. I have shaken their bejeweled hands, visited their opulent palaces, lounged in their plush offices, dined at their sprawling seafront homes. Without exception, they are pleasant people. But they're not real, at least not to me. I cannot relate to the way the universe revolves around them, and they cannot relate to paying bills, shopping for groceries, or having others tell them no. So, to me, they are surreal, even unreal. They are caricatures. I can't siphon any meaning from that. There is no life in it.

It is in the unguarded, often unexpected, moments that life happens. I often miss them because I'm not paying attention. Too busy being busy. So I try to ease up, watch, hear, think.

African men with blank, bored expressions operate the mechanical barriers that control access to my housing compound. They typically slouch in white plastic chairs beside the button that raises the drop arm, absently seeing us approach in our large, expensive cars. Then they press the button, and the drop arm goes up, and we drive through and go home, and they stay there.

One day I slowly approached a barrier, checking my email on my phone, thinking of schedules and places besides where I was. I rolled to a stop in front of the drop arm, glanced up from my phone. The drop arm didn't rise. I looked around for the attendant. In the shade of his guard shack I spotted him, asleep in his plastic white chair, a stray kitten curled up in this lap. His dark hand rested on the kitten's dirty white fur. They were real. Unposed. Candid. Caught in the act of life. I paused and watched, content. And my car idled.

Raising an Introverted Child, Eleven Years On

By Shannon

As a baby, my daughter didn’t generally like people outside her family. I figured this was just as phase; eventually she’d grow up to be just as happy to be with people as her father and I were. But she didn’t grow out of it by the time she was a toddler or by the time she was a preschooler or by the time she was a kindergartener or first grader or second grader, and eventually I detected a pattern.

By the end of fourth grade my daughter still hadn’t gotten beyond the acquaintance phase with any of her school peers. During the school day she hardly spoke at all. She preferred the outskirts of any situation—as far away from the commotion and action as she could get. Her greatest aspiration was to be ignored and forgotten. Her greatest frustration was being recognized in a group. When she wrote an exceptional essay, she resented the teacher’s public commendations. When she made an expressive drawing, she disliked her classmates’ admiration.

She disliked me too; I was the one who forced her to go to school.

One morning she said that she had dreamed that she was stuck in a deep pit and couldn’t get out. She looked up and saw me walking by above, so she called out to me to help her up. But I flatly told her no—I was sure she’d find a way to get out on her own. . . . And then she died. End of dream.

Obviously, my daughter felt that I wasn’t giving her the tools she needed to handle her life. I’m sorry to say that it took me about ten years to finally accept that she was just really different from other kids, and it was futile to wait for her (or pressure her) to change. It was only once I did this that she started developing into her best self.

I started thinking about ways to give her tools and to show her how to use them. In our weekly

family nights

, we role-played how to look people in the eye, give a firm handshake, and say polite things. We practiced together and then throughout the following weeks and months I praised her for (occasionally) getting it right in public.

I made sure that she learned that being different is not bad. It’s just . . . different. It was because of her social differences that she could uniquely appreciate and find joy in the world. And she could contribute to it

in her own way

.

For example, it’s because of her different approach to people that she knows just how to pose characters in her drawings and how to arrange the face into telling expressions. Her keenness as a listener and observer is evident in everything she creates.

Her talents have helped her develop her sense of self in a way of her own choosing. At school she was labeled “shy” and “quiet,” and she always resented the labels because they didn’t represent the self she wanted. So we’ve pursued opportunities to enter her drawings and writings in contests and publications to help her expand her sense of self and build up enough confidence to take more risks. We’ve encouraged her to pursue ambitious projects and to learn from her setbacks.

Over time I eventually realized that her problem wasn’t actually that she disliked people; it was that her comfort zone was just really, really, really small—like, about the size of our house. That’s why it was relatively easy for her to make friends with her cousins or with kids she saw in her home regularly. Making friends on the playground or at school was way too much to ask of her, however. Any expansion of her comfort zone had to start at home.

The personality types that have made the easiest friends for her are what I like to call “Barney personalities”: very verbal, loving, and expressive. They are the kind of people who don’t need any feedback at all to continue talking about whatever interests them. You could be a telephone pole with a painted-on face, and they would still talk to/at you.

That is why God sent us

our son

. Socially, he has taken his older sister by the hand many a time and helped her step outside her comfort zone. The year my son entered elementary school was the year that my daughter stopped vehemently complaining about going to school.

The realization that our home was key to expanding my daughter’s social capacities was transformative. When we consistently identified and invited Barney-type kids into our home, we saw correspondingly consistent progress in her social confidence and enjoyment. These types of kids might drive you batty with their chatter, but if you could hear the uninhibited laughter they can elicit from my daughter, you would understand that they have an important mission to fulfill on this planet.

So she makes friends best on her own turf and with a certain kind of personality. Another important element in friend-making for her is being among her siblings. They help her build emotional bridges to people outside her comfort zone. When they’re involved in her play dates, she can much more easily cast off her inhibitions and be her true self.

In summary, here’s our quick-and-dirty list of tactics that have helped our introverted child become her best self:

  • Role-play, practice, and review social conventions like eye contact and smiling; don’t assume that a child already understands how to use these tools.
  • Encourage relationships with Barney-type friends. They don’t even have to be the same age or gender as your child.
  • Set up play dates where the introvert’s siblings can participate.
  • Help her develop a strong sense of self. This can be through anything she’s good at or interested in. These things will help her grow confident in her unique voice and capacities.
  • Develop a strong family culture. Your child’s first and primary comfort zone is your home, so you need to make it feel as safe, stable, loving, and inviting as you can. Maintain daily, weekly, and seasonal family traditions. We have a lot of these traditions because of our religion. Religion can and should provide a strong sense of identity and purpose. If you don’t have a religion or don’t want one, you’ll have to think hard about how you can compensate with other healthy traditions. They are powerful.

When my daughter was a baby, I found her every movement, sound, and expression enthralling. She was like a campfire in a dark night. I couldn't take my eyes away from her. I still find her as wondrous as ever—she’s always changing in beautiful new ways. I love that little by little I find tools and understanding to help her light up the darkness.

Abu Halen Meets Franz Beckenbauer (or, "Godzilla Loves Cher")

I don't really have a topic meaty enough to expand into a full post. In reality, I probably could drag one of the following snippets out into 750 word missive -- one of my talents is using a lot of words to say very little. Sometimes in law school I would raise my hand to make a comment, and afterward the person next to me would lean over and say something like, "You just monologued for four minutes and I'm not sure what you said." And I would respond with something like, "That is because you are stupid." Then, when grades came out a few months later, and mine were really mediocre, the person sitting next to me would lean over and say, "You just went to law school for a whole semester, and it seems from your grades as though you're not sure what anyone said." It's funny how life can be circular like that. Not the "ha ha" kind of funny, but more the "let's get depressed and eat a whole block of cheese in one sitting" kind of funny.

Here are a couple snippets.

None of these guys (the lady excepted) knows much of anything. (Syria, 2003)
-- I have a pet gecko. I named him Geico, which I think is kind of an ironic, hipster name, because I don't actually use Geico insurance, so that makes it ironic that I named my gecko Geico. I think. I don't in reality fully understand the meaning of the word "ironic." Neither do hipsters, but at least I can admit it. I think this makes me a post-hipster, because I'm so uncool, and I concede that I'm uncool, and that ultimately makes me really, really cool. I am pretty sure that's how post-hipster-ism works.

My pet gecko lives in my house, but I'm never really sure where I'll find him. Usually he's on the wall in my bedroom by the air conditioner. I think he likes the music I play when I'm getting ready for bed (usually Cher, despite the fact that her voice gives me nightmares). One time though when I was drying off after a shower, I looked down and Geico was hanging out right next to my little toe. I freaked out, because the first thing that comes to mind when I see a lizard is Godzilla, and Geico scurried away. I don't see him as much anymore. Maybe I'm not playing Cher loudly enough.

-- The Ambassador called me on the phone the other day. I said, "Hello," and he said, "Hi, this is Franz Beckenbauer." And I said, "This sounds a lot like the Ambassador," and he said, "No, this is Franz Beckenbauer," and I said, "I don't know a Franz Beckenbauer." So he said, "You don't?" And I said, "I don't think so. Are you sure this isn't the Ambassador?" And he said, "Yeah, this is the Ambassador. How do you not know who Franz Beckenbauer is?" And I said, "I don't really watch a lot of reality TV dealing with food," because I thought Franz Beckenbauer sounds like someone who would be a chef. The Ambassador explained that Franz Beckenbauer is a famous former German soccer player, kind of like Germany's Pele. I could not possibly have known this, because I don't follow soccer. But the Ambassador was under the impression that I do in fact follower soccer, because earlier in the day I had printed out a copy of the week's World Cup schedule for him. I tried to patch things up by saying, "I do follow Pearl Jam quite religiously," but I don't think that helped things very much. Now I'm going to forever be known in the U.S. diplomatic community as "The Guy Who Doesn't Even Know Who Franz Beckenbauer Is."

Crossing Off the Days (or, "Stuff Edward Scissorhands Cannot Do")

My daughter is super talented. She made a calendar a few months ago. Out of paper and markers. It's harder than it sounds, what with all the drawing straight lines and counting the right number of days of the week and making sure the numbering is correct. Not just anyone can do it. Edward Scissorhands, for instance, cannot do it.

My daughter hung her calendar up on the wall and faithfully crossed off each day as it passed, counting down the boxes until she was going to get to leave Saudi Arabia. For, like, evah. Not because Saudi Arabia isn't a great place to live, because it is, if you like heat and dudes with nightsticks policing your behavior. Unfortunately, my daughter doesn't like those things -- don't worry she is starting therapy this week -- so she was pretty excited to leave, for, like, evah.

On the calendar box containing her departure date, she wrote in big capital letters, "WE LEAVE!!" I was less excited for her departure date than she was, because I didn't get to go back home with the family. Evidently the government requires its employees to work at least two out of every three months? So I had to stay behind and work for two more months before Uncle Sam will loosen the pursestrings and pay for my plane ticket home.

There they go. There they go again.
Finally, my little girl had crossed off all the days up to her big departure day. I threw nine bags, one wife, and four kids into the back of our Suburban at 8:30 p.m. -- the children are still small enough that they think it's normal to be thrown in the car, but my wife sometimes protests and calls me "brute" or "scoundrel" when I chuck her in the car. I rather like those labels. They make me feel like an English dockman. Or a member of the Sex Pistols (maybe just a roadie for the Sex Pistols).

When we arrive, the Jeddah airport is a zoo of humanity, the way it always is. There is no order. There are no parking spaces. Cars park anywhere. Everywhere. Dudes are leaning up against their idling cars, smoking. Their cars are idling in the middle of most lanes of the drop off zone. Guys honk and drive in reverse. Pilgrims are pushing carts stacked with Zamzam water -- water from the sacred Zamzam well in Mecca. They're taking the water home with them, a souvenir. Shannon comments that water is a funny thing for Saudi Arabia to export. She's so witty, that Shannon. I want to hug her, but we are in Saudi Arabia, so I just look at her fondly, but not too fondly, because, Saudi Arabia.

The guy at the check-in counter checks our bags and hands us five boarding passes. There are six of us, I silently and sadly note, but I don't get a boarding pass because I'm not leaving. I think the guy at the check-in counter did his job far too quickly and efficiently. Why couldn't he take 45 minutes to figure out our e-tickets, like they did last year when we were trying to leave on vacation? Then I could hang out with my family for an extra hour.

I can't go past the gate to the passport check lines. So I stand and watch until Shannon and her four little ducklings get lost in the swirl of people, and they're gone. It's one of those moments where you're in the middle of a cacophonous crush of thousands of people, amid furious noise and motion, but you're still all alone somehow.

The house is empty and quiet when I get back from the airport. I stand in the dark for a minute, thinking how everything is where I left it, how no curious little hands will be misplacing my stuff for the next two months, how no little voices will disturb me for the next two months. The thought makes me blue.

I flip on the light and I notice my daughter's calendar, hanging just a little crookedly on the wall behind the front door where she left it, dangling by a single strip of badly cut tape. She crossed off all the days, except today. She forgot to cross off today before she left, to draw a big, happy X through her "WE LEAVE!!" announcement.

I read something once in the Dad Handbook about how you're supposed to share in your children's happiness, even if they're happy about something that makes you kind of sad. So I swallow the lump in my throat and I find a big, fat marker, and I cross off her last box for her. Done. Good job, Susu!

Should You Force Your Kids to Do Chores? Or, Dragon Mom, Two Years On

By Shannon

A little over two years ago, I started a weekly tradition of chore day with my kids. At first it was THE worst day of my week. Ditto for the kids. We could hardly get through it without yelling at each other. A lot.

Part of the problem was that I was a newbie at training my kids to work, and the learning curve and resistance were steep. Another problem was that the kids had never considered that they should be required to work during their lifetimes. Establishing that expectation and the accompanying work routine were a huge part of the battle that is now basically won (in my favor!).


Why Kids Should Do Chores

Chores are like vegetables—kids don’t generally like them, but they universally need them. Chores teach children how to cope with things they don’t like and to delay gratification, which are both key components of grit. Grit is arguably more important to your child’s lifelong success than early reading, piano lessons, good grades, or soccer aptitude.

Chores also teach kids critical social skills, like working with their siblings, being civil even when they’re frustrated, and obeying their parents. Organization skills can also be an important byproduct of chores, as children learn to sort their clothing into the proper drawers, their toys into the proper boxes, and the silverware into the proper sections of the drawer. And you could also argue that chores can develop physical skills: maneuvering a vacuum cleaner or a wet mop, washing a window, etc.

One sage mom suggested that chores are essential for mothers who eventually expect to be promoted from laundry and dish duty. They’re also critical for moms who want their children to know how to take care of themselves by the time they graduate from high school.

How to Get Kids to Do Chores

You have to really believe in the value of chores before you’ll be willing to carve out the time, persistence, and patience necessary to get this ball rolling. Once you have that, you need to set up a system that works for your family. This will likely require some experimentation, so don’t give up too soon!

Here’s what works for my family. During the school week, my kids are on call for chores. Daily duties typically involve unloading the dishwasher, washing the table, setting the table, clearing the table, and laundry. During the summer, the kids are required to complete a minimum of two chores every day. On Saturdays I require them to complete at least six chores. Early on the kids settled into their favorites: S likes folding laundry and organizing, H likes mopping, and G likes anything that’s easy, like sanitizing door handles and light switches with these. I try to let them do what they like.

Especially in the beginning I always tied rewards to chores. Each chore was worth one point, which equated to a sum of money that was different for each child (because their quality of work differed). Chores like folding laundry freed up a lot of my time, so I agreed to spend that time reading stories to the kids while they folded (win-win, right?). In addition to these smaller rewards, I tried to arrange to have fun activities after chores were through—swimming, a trip to the playground, going out to lunch together, a movie, and so on.

The rewards are like a spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down. Now that the kids are proficient at many of the chores, they don’t always ask for rewards but do them simply because they’re part of the routine.

Setting Up a Chore Economy

You don’t have to use money to reward kids for doing chores; I know there are arguments against paying for chores. But we pay our kids for their work. We don’t give them any allowance.

We went through a few schemes for chore payment, the first of which involved a weekly printout of the chores they would be expected to complete. That scheme eventually devolved into columns on a scratch piece of paper: one column for each child, with tally marks indicating the number of chores they completed. For my family, simplicity has staying power.

I think it’s important to pay your kids like a cheapskate--even if, unlike me, you’re not a cheapskate. Otherwise, the money comes too easily and ceases to be a motivation for work volume. To teach them the incremental nature of the rewards for hard work, you've gotta be on the parsimonious side. S is paid 35 cents per chore, H gets 25 cents, and G gets 15 cents. They’ve each had a 5-cent raise on their birthday for the last two years.

You’d think that at those rates the kids would never be able to save up enough money to buy what they want. And I’m sorry, but you would be wrong. With supplementation from birthday and Christmas money, they have been able to buy LEGO sets galore, shoes, backpacks, lip gloss, jewelry, and more. None of those purchases are made without a great deal of deliberation. They know how long it takes to save up for what they want, so they don’t want to spend unwisely.

In addition to saving, the kids also set aside 10 percent of their earnings for tithing. (If you don’t pay tithing to a church, you could teach your kids to instead divert that 10 percent to a different kind of charity.) This teaches the kids that compassion requires sacrifice and that even when you’re at your poorest, you should still be compassionate.

Setting up your economy and your routine are the two aspects of kids’ chores that will require some research, planning, and follow-up on your part. After that, you just need to be as gritty about making your plan work as you want your kids to be when they grow up.

That’s pretty much it for how we roll with chores at our house. What chore traditions work well at your house?